“The fact is, no one in the projects really knew why Sportcoat shot Deems — not even Sportcoat himself,” writes James McBride in Deacon King Kong. “The old deacon could no more explain why he shot Deems than he could explain why the moon looked like it was made of cheese, or why fruit flies come and go, or how the city dyed the waters of the nearby Causeway Harbor green every Saint Paddy’s Day.”
The story that grows from Sportcoat’s startling act of violence is vintage McBride: a cast of characters at once vivid and eccentric and yet complex and believable, a propulsive plot, relentless humor, and a prose style as fluid and melodic as a jazz trumpet solo played by a bebop virtuoso.
Though best known for his acclaimed bestselling 1995 memoir, The Color of Water, James McBride is first and foremost a fiction writer. His 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, a stunning reimagining of the story of abolitionist John Brown from the point of view of a pubescent cross-dressing runaway slave, won the National Book Award for fiction and will soon debut as a Showtime original limited series starring Ethan Hawke as Brown and Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) as Frederick Douglass. Both screenwriter and a producer for the series, McBride has also collaborated with director Spike Lee on the films Miracle at Santa Anna (an adaptation of McBride’s novel) and Red Hook Summer.
McBride’s film and television work has no doubt helped him perfect the nimble pacing, vivid narration, and lively dialogue amply on display in Deacon King Kong. Red Hook’s housing projects are an ideal setting for a cinematic tale of comic misadventure:
“In a housing project where 3,500 black and Spanish residents crammed their dreams, nightmares, dogs, cats, turtles, guinea pigs, Easter chicklets, children, parents, and double-chinned cousins from Puerto Rico, Birmingham, and Barbados into 256 tiny apartments, all living under the thumb of the wonderfully corrupt New York City Housing Authority, which for $43-a-month rent didn’t give a squirt whether they lived, died, shat blood, or walked around barefoot so long as they didn’t call the downtown Brooklyn office to complain, ants were a minor worry. And no resident in their right mind would go over their heads to the mighty Housing Authority honchos in Manhattan, who did not like their afternoon naps disturbed with minor complaints about ants, toilets, murders, child molestation, rape, heatless apartments, and lead paint that shrunk children’s brains to the size of a full-grown pea in one of their Brooklyn locations, unless they wanted a new home sleeping on a bench at the Port Authority bus terminal.”
Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lampkin is the titular “King Kong” of the novel: a doddering elder with a taste for homemade hooch and a mind perpetually slipping into the past. Sportcoat inexplicably shoots an ear off one of the neighborhood’s most feared drug dealers, and Deacon King Kong patiently unravels the mystery of his motives. In the process, the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Red Hook circa 1969 becomes a microcosm for the country writ large, both then and now. Among McBride’s many gifts is his ability to use the distinct, unique experiences of fully fleshed individuals in a particular time and place to render the story of the nation as it experiences some of its most intense growing pains.
McBride’s work clings to hope in old-school values like faith, community, compassion, and the possibility of grace and reconciliation. Deacon King Kong is no exception. Another of McBride’s gifts can be summarized by the title of his recent nonfiction work about the musical legacy of one of his heroes, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown: Kill ‘Em and Leave. McBride always kills, in the best sense of the term. His work is fiercely incisive and insightful but always a pleasure, full of wit and whimsy — sexy, funny, scary, messy, and effortlessly cool.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in 2016. His second novel, The Fortunate Ones, is forthcoming from Algonquin in January 2021. He lives in Nashville.
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